The world is a GUI place: Apple and Longhorn

SAN FRANCISCO (11/17/2003) - I wrote a little-read tome called The Multimedia Production Handbook for Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Publishing Co. Even though I wrote it, I recall almost nothing about it now, but I do remember that the first chapter was a treatise on the practical usefulness of multimedia. At the time, the consensus among the serious media was that sound, animation and video had no place in business software. That attitude prevails, although the tide is turning.

In my book, I argued that everything else in life is a multisensory experience. You come into the office from a world of noises and smells and motion to sit in front of your computer. You leave a sumptuous reality for the computer's static, silent, two-dimensional, strictly business world. It's a wonder that workers don't just drop dead from the jarring transition.

Software is designed on the principle that an application does what is needed for a given task and no more. When the user experience is considered at all, consistency and efficiency get all of the attention. There is a misperception that an engaging graphical user interface is an amusement. It's not only a distraction from real work, it casts doubt on the motives of the company that made it. I'm often told that Apple would be taken seriously as a business technology player if it stopped thinking about users and, like Microsoft, focused purely on getting things done.

But pure functionality is not really what we want, is it? We want to know that a vendor's designers and engineers put themselves in our seats and thought about what it would be like to drive their software all day. For our employers' sake, vendors should have the goal of keeping us at our computers for as long as possible. Lately, I put in an average of 12 hours a day on my computers, and I've learned that my user experience makes a big difference. It makes the difference between compulsory and voluntary use of my machines. I sense the consideration and respect that designers and engineers invested on my behalf. It is the technological equivalent of good service. Food tastes better when you're served by someone who genuinely wants you to enjoy it. That's engagement. Engaging service generates tips and repeat business, but it doesn't work when it is a put-on.

Silicon, copper and programming tools have no inherent ability to engage users, no matter how advanced the technology is. People who prefer OS X don't say they have a specific admiration for alpha-blended shadows and anti-aliased text. I doubt most users can name the individual elements that draw them to the Apple Computer Inc. GUI. Instead, users say they say they like the Mac. They like Apple for making it for them, and it does feel as if it's made just for them. You know you're using the right software when, night after night, you have that "oh crap, I was supposed to be home an hour ago" moment. OS X engages me that way without obviously working at it, just by respecting the fact that humans use their software.

Microsoft Corp.'s Longhorn and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java Desktop System are clearly aiming at the same target. If these efforts are rooted in a real empathy for users putting in long hours, I'll enjoy being comfortable and productive in more than one environment. I genuinely hope they nail it.

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